Interior Department Must End Routine Fast-Tracking of Offshore Oil Drilling Projects

Kristen Schlemmer
July 12, 2023

Petition outlines how decades-old use of “categorical exclusion” allows companies to skip over risk assessments in oil and gas “sacrifice zone”

Washington D.C. – Bayou City Waterkeeper, with five Gulf and national environmental groups, submitted a petition today to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) within the Department of the Interior calling on the agency to end a routine practice of fast-tracking approval for offshore oil and gas projects. The Interior Department first adopted a “categorical exclusion” for oil and gas activities in 1981, allowing exploration and development plans to win approval for much of the Gulf of Mexico without undergoing the site-specific analysis normally required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

For more than 40 years, the repeated invocation of this exclusion has contributed to lax governmental oversight and a failure to grapple with the harmful effects of long-term resource extraction in the Gulf. In fact, BOEM relied on this same exclusion to approve BP’s exploration plans for the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling project, which caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Although the National Commission that investigated the causes of the BP disaster concluded that use of this categorical exclusion contributed to a systemic breakdown in BOEM’s environmental review process, the agency has not stopped invoking it on a routine basis. In the last five years, BOEM approved about 560 out of the 600 development plans submitted using the exclusion and about 90 out of the 400 exploration plans submitted.

The groups — Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Bayou City Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Earthjustice — are requesting that BOEM immediately take steps to repeal or eliminate this categorical exclusion for oil-and-gas exploration and development in the Gulf.

Allowing for expedited approvals of oil and gas activity has taken a heavy toll on the Gulf of Mexico. Given the intensification of climate change and the known risks of deepwater drilling in an era of more powerful hurricanes, BOEM has no rationale for the continued use of exclusions.

“In addition to environmental analysis, NEPA processes such as environmental impact statements also allow for critical public engagement through public notices and comment periods,” said Andrew Whitehurst, Water Programs Director for Healthy Gulf. “This use of a categorical exclusion ensures that people concerned with or impacted by oil and gas activities do not have a voice, nor do they have information available to them about predicted impacts from these fast-tracked projects. It’s time BOEM ends this exclusion and follows NEPA guidelines intended to protect our environment and the people that depend on it.” 

“BOEM’s use of the categorical exemption has given the petrochemical industry a pass to extract and pollute for far too long,” said Kristen Schlemmer, the Legal Director of Houston-based Bayou City Waterkeeper. “The federal government’s priorities for the Gulf of Mexico have been all wrong; they have forced those of us living in Houston and along the Gulf coast to yield our health and ecosystems for generations so that polluting industries may profit over the short-term. This petition gives the Biden administration the opportunity to end this practice and value what matters most: the health of our environment and our people.”

“The federal government has been rubber stamping new oil-and-gas activity in the Gulf of Mexico for far too long,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “Federal officials must stop their nonsensical approval process and instead consider the clear environmental and socio-economic harms before greenlighting dangerous projects. Assessing the damages of expanded fossil fuel extraction in the Gulf is the very least BOEM can do to protect this sacrifice zone and its communities.”

“There is no justification for the existence of the categorical exclusion, which has essentially been used as a NEPA workaround since the Eighties,” said Brettny Hardy, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “We’ve already witnessed the harrowing consequences of what happens when the government cuts corners on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. This is an easy decision and one that’s long overdue.”

“It’s way past time to stop giving oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico a free pass. We should be phasing out offshore drilling entirely,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But in the meantime, Gulf operations should get more scrutiny, not a fast-tracked approval. The oil and gas industry has proven it poses a huge risk to ocean ecosystems. The sea turtles, manatees, Rice’s whales and other animals that live in the Gulf deserve better protection.” 

“NEPA has been one of our bedrock environmental laws for more than half a century. Allowing categorical exclusions for offshore oil and gas extraction undercuts that critical law,” said Devorah Ancel, senior attorney Sierra Club Environmental Law Program. “It also deprives the public — and the communities affected by drilling — from weighing in on disruptive projects that could have significant environmental, economic, and social consequences for the people, ecosystems, and wildlife of the Gulf. The Biden Administration has the chance to protect these places by ending this practice.”

Over the last two decades, Bayou City Waterkeeper has emerged as a bold advocate for communities across the Lower Galveston Bay watershed. Through sound science and creative legal strategy, we work toward a shared vision of water justice. As we shape policy solutions that embrace the strength of our region’s natural systems, we are most effective when we center the experience of communities most vulnerable to water, climate, and infrastructure injustices. As part of our current strategic plan, we are working with communities to reduce pollution, environmental injustices, and climate risks created by industrial facilities and infrastructure and improve systems of accountability and enforcement.